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Driving Home the Point: Tips for sharing the road

By Tom O'Connor | May 15, 2023
Getty images / intararit / Irina Medvedeva
With more infrastructure work on the horizon, it's important for workers to know the regulations around work zones and traffic safety, both as drivers and as on-the-ground workers.

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Boosted by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, many states, municipalities and transportation agencies are working to rebuild and improve existing roads and aging highway infrastructure. According to the Federal Highway Administration, “More roadwork is being performed on roadways that are open to traffic. At the same time, traffic continues to grow and create more congestion, particularly in urban areas.” 

So it is unsurprising that nearly half of all on-the-job deaths occur in traffic safety work zones. This accounts for more than 100,000 crashes, nearly 50,000 injuries and almost 900 fatalities each year. These figures include road construction, line and utility workers conducting repair, maintenance and installation on or near roadways. OSHA has adopted standards to protect workers in roadways; however, most protections are included in Department of Transportation (DOT) and FHWA regulations.

The FHWA section of the DOT website explains that, “to avoid major queues during peak travel periods, urban areas are seeing more night work. The combination of more work done alongside increasingly heavier traffic and greater use of night work can result in increased safety considerations for highway workers.

“However, there are regulations and available resources on good practices that can help workers perform their jobs safely.” 

This includes the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) for streets and highways. Administered by the FHWA, the MUTCD is a compilation of national standards for all traffic control devices, including road markings, highway signs and traffic signals. The document is updated to reflect evolving transportation needs and incorporate new technology, traffic control tools and management techniques. 

All workers working in or near roadways should be properly trained and receive the minimum certifications required by traffic safety control procedures established in the MUTCD or a state equivalent. Eighteen states use the federal document and 22 states have adopted it with a state supplement.

Properly setting up a work zone

People working on or near roadways must be familiar with how to properly set up a traffic safety work zone. Warning devices are put into place to provide passing motorists with adequate time to react and respond to any necessary precautions created by the work zone. 

Typically, the work zone begins with advanced warning areas to alert drivers of upcoming traffic changes. Next, there is a transition area to change drivers’ paths; the work or activity area that includes a buffer space to further protect workers; and a termination area for drivers to return to a normal driving pattern. Special lighting may be needed if work is being conducted at night. Signs, barricades, flags, barrels and cones must conform to any local laws and regulations for setting up a work zone. After construction or work is completed, all building/warning materials and lighting must be collected and removed.

When workers are setting up, breaking down or actively working on or near roadways, they are required to wear highly visible safety apparel. In 2020, the American National Standards Institute updated its standard, providing a uniform, authoritative guide for the design, performance specifications and use of high-visibility and reflective apparel including vests, jackets, bib/jumpsuit coveralls, trousers and harnesses for road workers.

There are three classes of safety apparel. The higher the class, the more reflective tape the apparel has. The class is contingent on several factors, with traffic speed being the main one. Class 1 apparel should be worn for speeds up to 25 mph, Class 2 for speeds 25–50 mph and Class 3 for speeds over 50 mph. 

This clothing is of the utmost importance for flaggers. Flaggers should be positioned to give vehicles enough time to safely come to a complete stop. This provides ample time and visibility to avoid potentially dangerous situations and hazards. 

Dangers to look out for

Many injuries and deaths that occur in traffic safety work zones aren’t caused by civilian motorists. They happen within the work area by colleagues or contractors with commercial vehicles or equipment. Therefore, operators need to be cognizant of their surroundings. It is imperative that workers are familiar with the equipment they are operating, manufacturer recommendations, relevant operating manuals and recommended load limits. They should also inspect the equipment before using it. Using a spotter and maintaining constant communication with them can also be extremely helpful.

Spotters can see what operators may not, so they can communicate critical information to operators. Spotters, like flaggers, must wear the appropriate high-vis clothing, understand all policies and procedures and use traffic control hand signals to assist operators in moving safely around the work zone. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has valuable resources that drivers and road crews can refer to, such as blind-spot diagrams for several pieces of construction equipment, in order to help reduce injuries and fatalities. 

Environmental factors and exposure to the elements can also wreak havoc. Road work often takes place when the sun and heat are at their peak. Deadly heat-­related illnesses can be caused by either environmental or metabolic heat. Environmental heat is created as a result of warm or hot surroundings, including air temperature, humidity, radiant heat from sunlight or artificial heat sources such as furnaces and air movement. Metabolic heat is generated by the body and is linked to physical activity or workload. 

When working in hot, sunny conditions, it is imperative that workers dress appropriately, take breaks in cooler conditions away from the sun and limit exposure whenever possible. 

Work can also be done during extreme cold. Under those conditions, workers should wear clothing that will prevent cold-related injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia. 

Rain, snow, fog, haze, glare or slick or icy roadways can decrease visibility and increase the amount of time that a driver needs to stop. Night road work brings a host of additional challenges. 

Overall, almost 5,000 deadly crashes, more than 300,000 injury crashes and almost 1 million property-damage­-only crashes occur annually during adverse weather. This accounts for 28% of the total crashes and 19% of the fatalities. It is also estimated that weather-related crashes cost entities more than $40 billion. As a result, weather should be considered when setting up, traveling through or working in a traffic safety work zone. 

Navigating work zones as a driver

Now flip the script. We all travel through traffic safety work zones as drivers or passengers and need to be aware. Although work zones are designed and set up with safety in mind, there are still far too many injuries and deaths. On a Maryland highway in March, six construction workers were killed in the middle of the day by a car that flipped over into the work zone. Both cars were reportedly speeding, according to a preliminary report by the NTSB. These deaths could prompt new recommended safety protocols and brought renewed attention to the dangers highway crews face. The onus cannot be completely on workers. 

It is important to realize our responsibility as drivers to stay alert and obey flaggers and all traffic laws. Speeding is one of the biggest recurring causes of work zone crashes and the reason fines are often doubled in work zones.

Some ways we can protect the highway workforce when traveling through roadway work zones are expecting the unexpected, avoiding distracted driving, not looking at mobile devices and obeying work zone speed limits. Maintain a safe distance between your vehicle and those working in the zone and their equipment. 

There may be times that workers and their equipment will need to share the roadway with you, so give them as much space as possible for everyone’s safety. When entering a work zone, pay attention, read and adhere to all speed limits, warning signs and flaggers. After all, they are the ones who know the best way to navigate traffic safely. 

Factoring work zones into your plans is safer and better for workers and drivers, even if it delays your schedule.

FHWA Road Management Program

 

FHWA Road Management Program

 

Header image: Getty images / intararit / Irina Medvedeva

About The Author

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].

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